Prevent violence, don't just punish it, experts urge Pa.

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HARRISBURG -- A panel of experts is recommending that Pennsylvania work to prevent violence through steps involving mental health treatment, gun regulations and school safety procedures.

Among the panel's 44 recommendations: Law enforcement and first responders should receive training on mental health. Schools farthest from local police should be the priority for grants for school resource officers. People disqualified from owning firearms should have 72 hours -- not 60 days -- to dispose of their guns.

The report is one of several recent efforts that address school safety in Pennsylvania. House and Senate committees have held hearings on the topic, and state police last month released a report with safety guidelines for schools. The state this fall accepted applications for shares of $8.5 million included in this year's budget for school safety initiatives.

Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, who sponsored the resolution calling for the advisory committee, said he wanted to examine ways to prevent, not just punish, acts of violence. He plans to introduce legislation based on the recommendations in the report.

"We have a lot of tough laws in Pennsylvania about people who commit crimes, but that hasn't stopped it from happening," he said.

The report mentions Nickel Mines, the Lancaster County site of a 2006 shooting at an Amish schoolhouse, and the 2012 shooting at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh.

The section on mental health says literature on the topic has found that mental illness may be a risk factor for violence, but that demographic variables such as age, sex and socioeconomic status are more reliable predictors.

It also states that diagnosis and early treatment is the most effective way to prevent violence among people with mental illness, and contends that additional funding is "desperately needed" for community mental health services.

One committee member, Edward Mulvey, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, said members expressed a general concern that there has been too little effort to provide mental health services at schools and in communities.

"I was surprised at the unanimity of that opinion among the people in the room," he said. "The provision of services really has become pretty skeletal."

At the same time, he said, members felt that seeking out people who are dangerously mentally ill was not the key to the overall problem of preventing violence in the state.

After the shootings at the elementary school in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, gun control advocates pushed without success to expand federal requirements for background checks on purchasers of firearms.

Pennsylvania requires background checks for all transfers of handguns, except between family members, and the advisory committee recommended against expanding checks to private sales of long guns. The majority of homicides in Pennsylvania are committed with handguns, with far fewer using rifles or shotguns, according to the report, which also noted concerns that adding private long-gun sales could overwhelm the state's background check system.

But the report did recommend requiring people disqualified from gun ownership to more quickly dispose of their firearms and requiring owners to take "reasonable safety precautions" with firearms in homes where children live.

For schools, recommendations include annual safety audits, regular updating of safety plans and giving schools that are distant from local police priority in receiving grants for school resource officers.

The schools section received praise from representatives of teachers and administrators.

"Certainly school superintendents and other administrators want to see all that can be done to protect the health and safety of their students," said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

David Broderic, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, called the recommendations "an excellent step in the right direction."

He said many are similar to suggestions the union has made on topics such as comprehensive school safety planning and bullying prevention.

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Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com, 1-717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley.

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